How to be an expert on Africa

“Thinking Africa” is complicated, normally requiring years of trawling through thousands of books on economics, history, social science, anthropology and politics. No mean task, but one luckily simplified lately by numerous self-styled “Africa experts”, political spin-artists, sound-bite junkies, arriviste journos, think-tankers, policy wonkers, random bankers, distant academics, market honchos, corporate suits, public relations acolytes, and self-proclaimed politicians.

Duncan Clark

Duncan Clarke is the author of ‘Africa’s Future: Darkness to Destiny’.

So, no need to take the hard road. New pathways exist in the eternal search for Africa’s missing economic variables to explain the continent’s volatile track record over time or if you prefer recent apparent good news and presumed macroeconomics, and why this will continue for 50 years or more?

First things first: pick a theme of unrestrained optimism. Shed any Afro-pessimism or proclivity for real politik. Use terms like “dynamic”, “emergent”, “middle class” and “last investment frontier”. Remember it’s about unrestricted growth beyond history or capacity: since both are “adjustable”, the former by revisionism the latter by “new technology”.

Go for catchy sound-bites: like “Africa is rising”, the “African century” or “Africa’s moment”, even if all this might have happened before and may never again. Dwell only on what is going up, not on what might go down. Remember, one’s political risk is another’s commercial treasure.

Refer to the great African economists: Geldof, Bono, Madonna, Clooney, Angelina Jolie, or whoever might next walk the Hollywood red carpet. To sound “deep and historic” cite Niall Ferguson. Always genuflect before Nepad, transparency, good governance, inclusive growth, peer reviews and Mo Ibrahim – Tony Blair does, and it seems to work for him. If that fails, cite the economic wisdom of that illustrious “Africanist” Gordon Brown (who spent one whole month on the Dark Continent).

Praise economic initiatives called local content, best practice regulation, “indigenisation” (as Mugabe does), empowerment, nationalisation and so on: they’re models of Nobel Prize-like perfection guaranteed to boost investment, FDI and someone else’s economic growth.

Vote for “sustainability” (the glitterati do religiously). If you can’t, mention this in passing along with democratic, stable and “green”. Official buzz words cement your authenticity. Be available to fly anywhere and accept invitations to indabas, lekgotla, bosberaad, colloquia, assemblies, safaris, conferences or braai on “The Way Forward”, “Transformation” or similar Godly endeavours.

Repeat conventional wisdoms: “it’s the fastest growth region” (ignore time-scales here); “the top six (or is it seven) fastest-growth economies are in Africa” (do not question the significance of this); opportunities are “huge” (never attach contingent risks to this idea); project numbers growth is enormous (don’t mention venture size or related capital volumes); and show sage wonderment at FDI inflows (unrelated to world market investment movements).

Never mention state inefficiencies, infrastructural mayhem, proliferating parastatal behemoths, repetitive government disasters, massive institutional dysfunction, energy outages, failed or failing states which are only exceptions proving your prescient economic rule. Remember, coups d’états are passé, last century’s blip on the screen. Ignore contemporary kleptocrats in Armani suits with entourages of patronage. They reflect ancien regimes. Punt aid shamelessly, even if it is the policy wave of the past: it’s now “social capital”.

Never overcomplicate Africa: it is “one” after all (the AU says so). Unity is the inviolate leitmotif. Complexity is your enemy. Keep your intellectual horizons a mile wide, and an inch deep. One perfect size fits “Africa” interlocutors will appreciate your synthesis and profundity.

Remember, Africans are “entrepreneurial” (you saw that in three places on your ten day tour de l’Afrique). They would be more so but for colonialism, imperialism, francafrique (add Eurafrique), “unequal exchange”, foreigners (except Chinese), apartheid, prejudice against the “global South”, or other harbingers of disadvantage and victimology like anthropogenic climate change (admittedly difficult to predict, just like Africa or the weather).

Pay obligatory homage to “leadership”, local governance, public/private partnerships, newly-minted growth models, Millennium Development Goals, gateways to business, dynamic commercial hubs, changed realities, the “new normal” of 5% (or even 7%) annual GDP growth forever. Endorse linear pathways to nirvana. Never mention troubling matters like global commodity cycles. Rely on Africa’s inherent resilience. Praise Vision 2030 Plans guiding the masses to economic heaven. Do not question the obvious: drink the Kool Aid. It’s good for you, and Africa.

Pretend that corporate social “investment” is always benign (it helps CEOs, and photo-ops in annual reports) even if it contrasts with 50 years of failed “aid”. Don’t question why largesse is problematic. More is needed: ask Jeff Sachs.

Some notions are verboten in economic discourse: like, Ubuntu may be skin-deep, ethnicity may remain at issue (it was a colonial construct after all), or that NGOs have business models looking for a market (luckily Africa provides fertile terrain for the young and restless seeking “gap year” training to shed their expertise amidst tropical exotica).

Within complex economic landscapes, stress the blindingly obvious: Africa’s middle-class is “huge, growing at electric pace” (despite the inconvenience of peasants and urban underclasses), the “demographic dividend” is massive even if niggling problems of job creation will remain unresolved, and what goes up once, or for a few years (such as GDP), must always do so. This has been ordained by High Priests: the African Development Bank, World Bank, ECA and well-heeled corporate spin doctors.

“Africans” should always be seen to prefer “African solutions” (and you too) even where no-one knows what this might be. Speak “of them and to them” so they know they “exist”, alike vague socio-anthropological entities, notwithstanding a couple of thousand languages, fifty-five “nation states” in balkanising evolution, hundreds of fragile borders, multiple power-brokers, and an unfathomable mix of ethno-linguistic societies and competitive entities seeking survival under Africa’s sun.

Avoid saying Africa is or should be “one country”: even Sarah Palin knows that. Pay respect to the spaghetti bowl of regional economic cooperation and trade agreements, with their alphabet soup of acronyms (ECOWAS, SADC, EAC, COMESA, plus more) even if they barely function. Maybe they will one day, to create that fictional “Africa market” with its Afro-currency and African Monetary Union, along with the rest of the bureaucratic-cum-political paraphernalia that could spell doom even before it was borne.

Your micro-anecdotes will illustrate macro-truth. Tell epochal tales of that Abidjan taxi driver, the Mombasa hotel fellow met, the Lagos market Mama, street hawkers anywhere, to depict “dynamic” Africa’s billion-plus demography. Throw in some few rich and famous (Dangote an option) to balance matters so the breadth of your extensive Africa contacts, interviews and investigation is revealed.

History is essential to establish your savvy and emotional credentials. The “West” (a dubious bunch) should be castigated at least once in your pithy analysis. Shift your mind-set eastwards to the new fulcrum of the future, China and BRICS, remembering that South Africa is its economic pivot, Nigeria is not to be trusted, while all others are inconsequential (as most are not of Africa).

Make sweeping generalisations, like “mobile telephony has transformed Africa”. Don’t mention that Africa is 2% of the world GDP, its domestic savings record poor (in places non-existent), the debt profile has been heavily engineered with write-offs, and its power industry approximates Spain’s. Ignore economic shocks that might lurk ahead (Euros, drought, famine, warlords, conflict, or megalomaniac and geriatric politicians): that’s Africa-pessimism, the disease of the demented, and a brush not to be tarred with.

Economic or political failures should be ignored, airbrushed or minimised as inconvenient sideshows: Zimbabwe, Somalia, DRC’s Great Lakes, Azawad (that’s the “New Mali” by the way), SADR, and those dozen or more economies struggling to breakeven inside wicked globalisation.

Bounce your favourite themes off the utterances of the cognoscenti and recently-quoted celebrity economists, the parachute artists of economica that come and go as the rains in Africa, such as Stiglitz and random Harvard alumni. Always say things like: “we see now that … we think that” … even when you have not seen anything, and thought even less, and mostly where this is only your own random opinion.

Join “Oprah in Africa” if possible, if not then an Oprah-styled five-minute sound-clip opportunity, say on CNBC Africa, to articulate your insight, cast precious pearls before Africa, and talk-the-talk. Keep up with the latest clichés, the fast-moving bits and bytes of intelligence that signal depth of understanding. Invent one for your own use. Watch the Twitterati (they know what’s going on).

Move with the social tides and do not get stranded on the beach of ignorance, branded with “old thinking”. Stick with platitudes, to offend no-one: you may be invited back again. After all, you are the self-selected management of Africa. Your ideas should prevail, especially so you can take the credit and allocate the blame.

Your audience may disbelieve if you don’t signal unmitigated concern for rampant unemployment, informal economies of growing desperation and Africa’s fast-expanding slum-ridden mega-cities: these are merely opportunities awaiting social entrepreneurship, bottom-of-the-pyramid marketers, and innovative urban planners – maybe even you.

For South Africans with historic guilt complexes or insecurities (where “Africa” is “over there”) parade your inherent sympathies, with empathy. Avoid saying you are “going into Africa”. Endorse Mandela-economics, whatever that might mean. Love the “development state”, even if it taxes the bejesus out of everyone, and means government of the state, by the state, and mostly for the state. You will never be part of it anyway, so reshape your strategy: “go North”. It may resolve the quandary you once had about Africa “coming South”. Whereas before, you worried about South Africa becoming like them, now they worry that you won’t.

Embed your blind optimism in models of gratuitous upliftment. Plug your inherent moral virtues. Never mention “The Hopeless Continent” except to infer that its authors were deluded. Refrain from politically incorrect concepts like underdevelopment or economic backwardness (these are throwbacks to the 1960s – and what did they know then anyway?). Stay eminently networked and ideologically fashionable: the alternative is anachronism. Do not consult the vast literature on the continent’s economies: it could derail your critical theses. No one wants that to happen.

Above all, remember that Africa is a construct of 19th Century Europe’s imagination and Africa’s 20th Century mythologies: or is it the other way around?

Sometimes it’s hard to recall.

*Duncan Clarke is the author of Africa’s Future: Darkness to Destiny, (Profile Books, 2012) – [email protected]